Friday Flickr Dump: Rainy Day Edition

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Drain PipeWell, as I alluded yesterday, I had an article about the upcoming fire season in the Daily Press last night ((Of course, being the banner story and all, it’s not included on our Web site)). The article (June Fire Update — PDF) talked about the fuel and weather conditions in the Southwest, and about some of the recent fire activity we’ve had in the area.

One of the things that stuck out while writing the story was the realization of the dependent relationships that make fire season what it is, particularly here in southwest New Mexico and especially after a wet winter or spring.

As the grass and brush that sprouted as a result of those wet months dries out in the early summer heat, the threat of wildfire jumps because there’s more fuel on the ground. The heat, however, plays another role in increasing the danger. The high temperatures mean less moisture is required for convection, so thunderstorms build up and move into the area. However, there’s not quite enough moisture to result in rain.

Thunderstorms – rain = dry lightning. Voila: wildfire!

Of course, the story appeared the same afternoon that we had our first good rain of the summer, and all our newspapers were wrapped up in plastic bags to protect them. Such is the life of a reporter.

Anyhoo, the weather did provide an awesome opportunity for photography (gotta love the overcast light). Below, a few of the images from yesterday, including this shot of a pigeon that let me get within a foot with my macro lens and never flew away:

Bird's Eye View

Green Bug Pink Daisy

Look At Me

Reporter’s Notebook: Fire Season

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I’ll have more on this in today’s edition of the Daily Press, but wanted to include two maps I found while doing research for a story yesterday (click for larger versions):

Southwest Fire Weather Outlook

Southwest Fire Behavior Outlook

Both maps come to us from the Southwest Coordination Center. You can find updated (looks like daily) versions of these maps at the Center’s Predictive Outlook page.

I wanted to highlight these maps, as they give a good overall sense of what’s happening in the region. Dry lightning is a huge concern right now for fire officials (right up there with fireworks) and the first map does a great job of showing how thunderstorms are behaving.

Checking the second map, you can see Silver City is just on the cusp of “Active” fire behavior, with the western third of Grant County firmly in the yellow. That second map shows what fire might do in a particular region. Wind conditions, temperature, fuel levels and other criteria determine a fire’s course and behavior, and that changes on a daily basis. Nonetheless, the overall picture is an important one to study.

Like I said, more in the Daily Press this evening.

Using fire to restore watersheds

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8-11-06 Pano small
I’ve got an article (PDF) in today’s Daily Press discussing a recent project in the Mangas Watershed to restore fire into the natural cycle of the ecosystem. A big part of the article details the cooperation among the agencies involved in the process, but the real interesting stuff if the way prescribed burns are helping the ecosystem in southwest New Mexico.

4-25-06 Pano small

Bruce Anderson, a Gila National Forest wildlife biologist, provided these before-and-after photos from one of the areas that was treated with fire. As you can see from the photos above, the area is returning to more of a “woodland” system, as opposed to a heavily forested (with piñon and juniper) system. The first photo is from August, while the second photo was taken more than a year ago in April 2006.

Here’s what he said about the project:

During the past several years, project partners completed a number of prescribed burns, totaling more than 55,000 acres, in the Mangas watershed area. In addition, more than 250 erosion control structures were completed along rills in the watershed.

The difference has been drastic. Bruce Anderson, a biologist with the Gila National Forest, told the Daily Press his agency was “very supportive” of the type of habitat restoration the Mangas project fostered.

“We’re seeing tremendous results,” Anderson said. “We’ve been doing this since 2000, and we’ve seen a very definite increase in the amount of deer use in these areas, as well as many of the other species.”

One of the constants during the past two years has been the number of Forest Service employees (and others) explaining the benefits of prescribed fires. Even after the tragic Los Alamos fire, and a resulting ban on prescribed burns, those who work in forests know that fire is a natural part of the ecosystem. I was told yesterday that fire traditionally swept through areas of the Mangas Watershed every 8-11 years, based on tree ring samples.

Fire (like water and energy) is a complex topic here in the Southwest. It can be incredibly hazardous, especially to homes within the Wildland Urban Interface. But it can also play a vital role in restoring the forest to a more natual state.

Which way will Pearce vote?

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The Washington Post (hat tip to Tapped) today reports on Democratic efforts to sweeten the deal on a measure that would bring American troops home from Iraq next year:

House Democratic leaders are offering billions in federal funds for lawmakers’ pet projects large and small to secure enough votes this week to pass an Iraq funding bill that would end the war next year.

So far, the projects — which range from the reconstruction of New Orleans levees to the building of peanut storehouses in Georgia — have had little impact on the tally. For a funding bill that establishes tough new readiness standards for deploying combat forces and sets an Aug. 31, 2008, deadline to bring the troops home, votes do not come cheap.

But at least a few Republicans and conservative Democrats who otherwise would vote “no” remain undecided, as they ponder whether they can leave on the table millions of dollars for constituents by opposing the $124 billion war funding bill due for a vote on Thursday.

What’s included?

[T]here is $25 million for spinach growers hurt by last year’s E. coli scare. For three conservative Democrats in Georgia, there is $75 million for peanut storage. For lawmakers from the bone-dry West, there is $500 million for wildfire suppression. An additional $120 million is earmarked for shrimp and Atlantic menhaden fishermen.
(emphasis mine)

I don’t think Rep. Steve Pearce is going to vote for an end to the war, but that vote will be a vote against wildfire suppression. Wildfires were a huge deal in his district last year: more than 83,000 acres were burned on the Gila National Forest alone, and suppression costs of those fires was $17.8 million. Even with the wet winter we’re already starting to see them flare up again. There is a huge amount of fuel on the ground, and things are looking bad across the West:

Precipitation Levels in the West

Airport Fire Photo Dump

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Airport Fire 8

I was tipped off by a good friend yesterday about a fire south of Whiskey Creek Airport (a few miles southeast of Silver City). I ran home for my trusty fire boots and headed for the action.

When I arrived on scene, there wasn’t any active fire, but firefighters were still patrolling for “smokers” to make sure the fire was 100 percent contained.

Airport Fire 1

Airport Fire 2 Airport Fire 3 Airport Fire 4

Airport Fire 7

Airport Fire 5 Airport Fire 6 Airport Fire 9

Airport Fire 10

NY Times on wildfire costs

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Last month, I wrote a story (no longer on the Daily Press site, for PDF version click here) on firefighting costs, and a report issued by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. I looked at the ways in which New Mexico has worked to improve conditions in the wildland urban interface — where forests meet homes and communities:

While the OIG report states one of the major problems is the wild­land interface and slow progress in protecting homes from wildfire, [NM Forestry spokesman Dan] Ware counters that New Mexico is at the forefront of such efforts.

“We have done just a fantastic job as a whole on the community level,” he said. “There are many more fire-wise communities in New Mexico than other places in the country, and that’s because we have a very good inter-agency rela­tionship with our state and federal land partners to private land owners to communities in general.”

“I think, in many ways, New Mexico leads the nation in our ability to get on the ground and get things done.”

New Mexico has been hard at work with these issues, and Grant County is the same way. For years, the New Mexico Forestry has used grant money to evaluate homeowners’ properties for defensible space. Locally, Gary Benavidez helped start the program several years ago, and, yesterday, he told me there are some 75 properties in the area waiting to be evaluated. Those residents can then clear brush and trees that might put their homes in danger.

I say all this because the New York Times has an article about the audit in today’s edition:

The report from the Agriculture Department’s inspector general said a major problem was simply the weight of accumulated assumptions: fire response in the West has long meant federal authorities riding to the rescue, with no questions asked and no cost too great to bear.

“Public expectations and uncertainties about protection responsibilities,” the report said, “compel the Forest Service to suppress fires aggressively and at great expense when private property is at risk, even when fires pose little threat to National Forest system land.”

While I humbly suggest you read my article as well, the NY Times piece is a great place to start learning about the latest in firefighting efforts across the West.